The Stress Mess
The Stress Mess
Funny story: When Lisa Damour published Untangled in 2017, I heard her speak and then met her for coffee. I wanted her to be less impressive in-person, but no luck. I was sure that her winning combo of deep insight and wit wouldn’t pan out over a cup of coffee one rainy late afternoon — wrong again. And then I just wanted to hate her for being so awesome, but she’s completely unhateable. She’s the real deal, which is why everything she writes in that authentic voice, rich with life experience, resonates so loudly.
Okay, so here’s the funny story: that day over coffee, as if we had known each other for more than the 45 minutes we had, I tried to convince Lisa to write a boy book. Untangled for guys. Parents would eat it up. Lisa laughed at me and said: I have a new book that I am working on and, frankly, I’m pretty far behind. So why don’t you do it? The new book is Under Pressure, which thankfully Lisa wrote because the world needs this one, too. And the funny part? She got in my head, which is precisely why I am slogging away writing a boy parenting book. Want to know more about what makes Lisa Damour tick? Read on...
1. You rocked the parenting book world with Untangled, which walked parents through a rational approach to raising girls based upon your own clinical experience. This time you are focusing on a specific feature of growing up: stress and anxiety. Is this the biggest issue girls are dealing with today?
It certainly seems to be the one I am hearing about the most — both from girls and their folks. This topic did not seem to be on everyone's lips ten years ago, but now I feel that not a day of my professional life passes without me consulting with a girl, teacher, or worried parent about a girl who feels overwhelmed by stress or crippled by anxiety.
2. Through your lens as writer and therapist, is stress ever good? (Because through my lens as pediatrician, the answer is yes...)
Absolutely. Moderate levels of stress contribute to durability and flexibility. We should aim to expose our kids to what I call "Goldilocks Stress": not too little, not too much, but — on balance — just right.
3. What are the biggest drivers of teen stress and anxiety?
For starters, there are widespread misconceptions about stress and anxiety: both kids and adults have come to believe that stress and anxiety are always bad or harmful. This does not fit with the long-held understanding within the field of psychology that stress and anxiety are normal, healthy, and beneficial functions that will inevitably occur in the course of a normal day and that do, occasionally, spin out of control. Misunderstandings about normal feelings of pressure and tension have led us to a moment when children now become stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious.
4. How has stress evolved since we were kids (other than the fact that it has become a verb)? And when did anxiety become a buzz word?
In addition to the misconceptions about stress, I do think today's world asks a lot of our kids. Growing up in the digital age means that information comes at them quickly and all the time and that they never truly get a break from interacting with their peers (which can be stressful even when it's going well). School is now more demanding for our kids than it ever was for us as we have pushed college-level work down into high school, high school work into middle school, and so on.
5. Is it possible to live a stress-free childhood anymore?
Stress rises any time we have to adapt to new demands or operate at the edge of our current capacities. So, childhood will always be (and has always been) stressful because it is practically defined by growth and change. We should, however, worry about the toxic levels of stress that so many of today's kids now feel. We can take steps to shield children and teens from toxic stress, but we have to be deliberate about it..
6. How has parenting your own daughters impacted your two books? And how have your books impacted your parenting?
I wrote Untangled before I had a teenager at home, so I can say that that book was entirely (and, I think, for the better) shaped by my work as a clinician. Under Pressure has hit a little closer to home - and I do talk about both of my daughters in it. There's no question that being a parent has made me a much better psychologist in general, and hopefully in the written work I do. And I like to think that my work has improved my parenting. I try to check my psychologist hat at the door, but I do think that having a sense of the broad and normal range of development and appreciating that bumps are always to be expected has helped me to be more relaxed as a parent.
7. From the I don’t know how she does it files, how do you find time to write books, counsel girls and their families, author a regular NY Times column, and show up on the morning news programs to spread important info? In other words, are you human?
I am fortunate to have a ton of support, both at home and at work. Stress is transactional: whether something is unfeasible or overwhelmingly stressful depends almost entirely on the supports that are available. I couldn't do half of what I do without the incredible backing provided by my family, my editors, my clinical colleagues, and my producers. I believe that I am the luckiest person I know.